The European Union is currently engaged in a debate over how best to respond to the challenges posed by the information war which the Kremlin has unleashed over Ukraine. Thanks to eighteen months of relentless and highly effective Kremlin propaganda, there is now an emerging – albeit belated – consensus in European capitals that Russia’s aggressive information strategies pose a threat to the EU as whole. These concerns are also shared in the US, which has been shaken out of its post-Cold War complacency by the success of Russia’s information offensive. Nevertheless, few seem to know how best to respond. While much of the debate over countering Putin’s infowar has focused on the need to systematically debunk fake news stories and surgically dissect Russia’s many media myths, the most powerful weapon available may actually be laughter.
Making light of the virtual reality world created by the Kremlin-controlled Russian media may not strike everyone as a particularly appropriate approach, given the deadly seriousness of the impact this manufactured worldview has had on the people of Ukraine. In the final analysis, there is certainly nothing funny about the infowar being waged by Moscow, but the fact remains that satire could have an impact which dwarfs more sober and academic approaches, reaching sections of the Russian-language population which would likely dismiss hard news coverage as mere counter-propaganda. In recent times, mass market satirical platforms such as America’s ‘The Daily Show’ and Britain’s ‘Have I Got News For You’ have demonstrated how a comedic approach can have a significant impact on parts of society which have long since lost faith in traditional news sources. Comedy offers a way of cutting through the prevailing mood of cynicism which has increasingly undermined the authority of the mainstream media in both Russia and the wider world over the past few decades.
Satire has long been the Achilles Heel of authoritarianism. Dictatorships are notoriously humorless, and history abounds with examples of oppressed and occupied nations which have managed to keep the spirit of resistance alive by resorting to black comedy. This was particularly true of the Soviet Union, where a flourishing subculture of anti-establishment anecdotes and gallows humour served to expose the façade of public adherence to official Communist dogma. Putin’s Russia may now be particularly vulnerable to this kind of comedic approach. Modern Russians tend to pride themselves on their worldly sense of humour, and Russian TV schedules are packed with all manner of hugely popular comedy shows lampooning every aspect of daily life – except domestic politics. The inhabitants of the Kremlin remain strictly off-limits to all but the most daring of Russian comics, creating an invitingly vacant niche which could be exploited to great effect by those looking to expose the inherent ridiculousness of the Putin regime.
‘Satire could have an impact which dwarfs more sober and academic approaches, reaching sections of the Russian-language population which would likely dismiss hard news coverage as mere counter-propaganda.’
Ukraine’s Russian-language popular culture and deep familiarity with Russian society make it particularly well-placed to lead this process. As the current conflict with Russia has escalated, Ukrainian comedy troupe ‘Kvartal-95’ has been at the forefront of Ukrainian efforts to lampoon the Kremlin, producing a steady stream of brilliantly satirical material spoofing popular Russian narratives. Online mockery has also played a major role in Ukraine’s response to Russia’s hybrid war, with daily memes poking fun at the latest disinformation campaigns and absurdities to emerge from Moscow. This approach now needs to be replicated on a far larger scale.
The tactics of the Cold War, which saw the Western powers counter Soviet propaganda by providing alternative news sources in traditional formats, will no longer work. Today’s jaded audiences need to be entertained – a lesson which the Kremlin has learned well. Whereas the Soviet media was famously dull and straight-laced, today’s Russian infowar is extremely entertaining, utilizing state-of-theart production values and dramatic presentation techniques straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster. The only thing it dare not do is laugh at itself. This is one area where the Western world has always excelled. Indeed, it could be argued that the ability to poke fun at its own institutions represents the essence of Western civilization. By responding to Russia’s infowar with Russian-language comedy content, the EU and the US could bypass the Russian public’s resistance to counter-propaganda, while also remaining true to their own core values. The Kremlin is currently winning the information war, but it is by no means assured of the last laugh.